Tag Archives: Chicago

PACIFIC BEACH: An unforgettable year (Part IV)

My baby was due in early May.  One Friday close to my due date, I underwent a procedure in my doctor’s office called amniocentesis.  It involved plunging a needle into me to extract fluid proving that my fetus’s lungs were sufficiently mature.  It was painful, briefly, and there was a danger of piercing the amniotic sac, but skillful Dr. Blank carried it off with aplomb.

I felt fine when it was over, and Marv and I took off for a beautiful afternoon in Balboa Park.  We strolled through the park until we came across the Spanish Village Art Center, a collection of small buildings designed like an old village in Spain.  It was originally built in 1935 for the second California Pacific International Exposition, and a group of dedicated artists had turned it into a permanent art center. Artists have continued to preserve and enhance it. 

We happily encountered a watercolor artist, Frances Steffes, who was showing some of her paintings, including one of La Jolla Cove.  After chatting with her, we decided to buy this watercolor, which captured the beauty of a spectacular spot in La Jolla.  The painting now hangs in the home of the baby I gave birth to two days later.

Dr. Blank had warned us that amniocentesis might hasten the birth, so we took it easy on Saturday.

I woke up around 4 a.m. on Sunday. The process had begun.  As a high-risk primapara, I was worried that things might not go smoothly, so I needed to get to the hospital right away.

Marv and I phoned Dr. Blank and left for the hospital.  At that time, Scripps Memorial Hospital arose in the middle of a still largely undeveloped tract of land in La Jolla.  We were ushered into a room where my progress was monitored by a rather brusque nurse until Dr. Blank arrived.  Although I had increasingly painful contractions, I was told that my labor didn’t “progress” well.  Because of my high-risk status, Dr. B didn’t want labor to continue indefinitely, and at noon he decided to deliver my baby by C-section.

Now we began to wait for an operating room.  I was in agony, wondering exactly what was causing the hold-up.  We were finally told that only one operating room was available on Sundays (that was somewhat surprising), and another operation was in progress.  A male baby had a “bleeding circumcision,” and we had to wait for it to be surgically repaired before I could be moved to the operating room.  The surgeon who had caused the flawed circumcision must have been desperate to repair it to secure his professional reputation. 

All this time, I was having intense labor pains, along with accompanying worries about my high-risk status, and the waiting seemed interminable.  (I could comment here about gender-bias, but I won’t.)

Finally, I was moved to the operating room. An anesthesiologist gave me a spinal injection that killed my pain, and he and I chatted while Dr. B deftly performed my C-section.  When Dr. B announced, at last, “You have a beautiful baby girl!” I burst into tears, deliriously happy tears running down my face.

As soon as I was moved to a room, Marv immediately rushed to my bedside (fathers weren’t allowed in operating rooms), joyfully telling me, “She’s the prettiest baby in the nursery!”  By this time, Marv and I had decided on a name in memory of his late mother.  I’ll call her Felicia. 

We were extremely relieved to learn that Felicia had no signs of diabetes (or any other ailment), and my own gestational diabetes had vanished as soon as she was born.  It reappeared only briefly during my next pregnancy and then once again disappeared.  I’ve been lucky to have been spared this awful disease.  So far, at least.

Mom arrived from Chicago to join our newly-created three-member family when we left the hospital.  Her cheerful stay was brief but helpful.  After she left, Marv and began to focus on our new life.  Tammy and Norm volunteered to be our first babysitters, and we took them up on it and left for a quick bite at Bully’s.

Breastfeeding, a/k/a nursing, was a challenge.  At the time, breastfeeding wasn’t universally adopted by new mothers.  But I was determined to try.  I constantly returned to another well-thumbed paperback by an author who strongly endorsed it.  Just as she warned, it was painful at first, but I persevered, and it was worth it.  I loved holding Felicia in my arms, nurturing her with milk produced by my own body.  I still think that breastfeeding is an astounding experience that every mother should at least attempt, and I was delighted that both of my daughters followed my lead and breastfed their babies.

At home with my baby, I was able to watch the televised impeachment hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee, which began on May 9th.  By June, Woodward and Bernstein had published All the President’s Men, its astounding revelations creating a firestorm.  Tricky Dick was clearly in big trouble.

Going for long walks with our baby smiling at us from her carriage, Marv and I began to look at houses. We weren’t certain that we had a future in La Jolla (he had only a one-year appointment as a visiting professor), but we thought we might as well look, right?  I remember seeing a house in La Jolla that listed for $40,000.  It was in a not-so-desirable part of town and probably wasn’t much of a house, but looking back even a few years later, I realized what a great investment any piece of property in La Jolla would have been. 

Unsure that we’d stay, we unfortunately couldn’t consider buying it.  We didn’t have a lot of spare cash, and we needed to save what we had for a future home, wherever that might be. 

Marv and I got adventurous, taking our baby to a restaurant for the first time.  Our choice was La Rancherita, a small Mexican place on La Jolla Boulevard.  Dinner there was a breeze.  Felicia slept through the whole thing.

We tried our luck again a few weeks later.  We headed for a terrific Italian restaurant in Pacific Beach.  But our luck had run out.  This visit was a near-nightmare. Although Felicia was a happy baby who almost never cried, here she cried the entire time.  The only positive thing that happened: A woman diner asked me her name, then told me she’d given the same name to her own daughter.  That made me feel a tiny bit better.

Aunt Sade and Uncle Sam reappeared, driving down from LA, and we ate at a splendid seafood restaurant in La Jolla called Anthony’s. While we ate, we all gazed at the entrancing Felicia.  I was delighted to see Sade and Sam again at our joyous reunion, and I looked forward to another one. 

Life was blissful.  Although we knew we might have to leave our magical life in La Jolla, the prospect was too awful to contemplate.  But one day Marv had to relate very bad news. 

We’d been hoping that his one-year appointment at UCSD would be extended.  But his mentor, an older professor who (as I recall) headed the math department (I’ll call him Jay), was leaving.  A native of the Netherlands, Jay had taught at American universities for decades.  But his second wife missed her home in Europe and was eager to return.  For whatever reasons, Jay accepted a position in Amsterdam. 

This was shocking news.  Jay had invited Marv to UCSD because he greatly admired Marv’s work as a mathematician and relished sharing ideas with him.  I think Jay would have made sure that Marv remained his colleague at UCSD.  But Jay was departing, and his influence no longer held much weight.   

So although Marv was at the top of his field (he’d already earned tenure at the University of Michigan), the rug was suddenly pulled out from under him when Jay announced he’d be departing for Europe. 

Marv began searching for another job in California.  But it was too late in the academic year to secure a new faculty position, and other attempts to find a meaningful position for someone of his academic stature didn’t pan out.

So together Marv and I bravely faced facts.  We’d have to leave our idyllic new life in La Jolla.  We knew that the math department at the University of Michigan would welcome Marv back with open arms, so it made sense to return to Ann Arbor for one more year. 

Our new baby was totally dependent on us, and it was imperative that the three of us stay together.  I sadly had to forgo the prospect of returning to my Legal Aid job in San Diego.  I knew that I would continue to pursue my own career, but I never for one second considered looking for a job that would separate me from my adored Marv or my beautiful new baby or both.

Together we would move back to Ann Arbor.

We began packing.   While we packed, we put Felicia, comfy in her baby chair, on the floor near us. We discovered that she liked to kick brown paper grocery bags, watching the empty bags move and listening to them make noise, so we placed bags where her tiny feet could reach them.  This effort kept her happy while we filled up cartons with our stuff.

As we packed, Tricky Dick Nixon faced his own grim future.  On July 24th, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to deliver tape recordings and other materials to the district court.  The walls were closing in on him.

Then, between July 27th and 30th, we learned of two other developments:  The House of Representatives issued Articles of Impeachment, and Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape was disclosed.

Around August 1st, Marv and I flew back to Ann Arbor (via Detroit) with our not-quite-three-month-old baby.

While we stayed at Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Hotel, looking for an apartment, we had one consolation for our move:  On August 8th, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised speech (he officially resigned and left the White House the next day).  Watching his humiliating speech on TV, Marv and I celebrated by ordering steak and champagne from hotel room service.

An even more significant and lifelong consolation:  Our baby.  Felicia sustained us through everything we dealt with during the next year in Ann Arbor.  Flooding my memory is the agony of pushing her baby carriage through daunting piles of snow and ice that winter.

This darling new person in our life sustained us until the following spring, when Marv accepted an excellent job offer from a university in Chicago.  Being in Chicago would be an exciting departure from Ann Arbor.  Soon we used our spare cash to buy a house in the leafy lakefront suburb of Wilmette. 

No, it wouldn’t be La Jolla.  It wouldn’t be Pacific Beach.  But our new home in Wilmette meant the beginning of a beautiful new life.

PACIFIC BEACH: An unforgettable year (Part II)

September brought a lot of changes. 

Just about the time I began teaching, I discovered that I was pregnant.  The relentless nausea convinced me.

I needed to find a doctor, an obstetrician I could like…and trust.  My new friends, Lyn and Ted, knowledgeable about health-care professionals, came to my rescue.  Once I confided my suspicions to Lyn, she immediately recommended a couple of doctors who practiced together nearby.

Nausea propelled me to make an appointment.  After a routine test confirmed that I was pregnant, I began taking a prescribed med, but it didn’t lessen my nausea very much.  So I began to resort to other remedies.  My best discovery was…date shakes!

Happily, I could get fantastic date shakes at a shack along La Jolla Boulevard where it bordered Pacific Beach.  Not only did I revel in the flavor and texture of the date shakes, but their cold temperature also chilled my interior, dramatically lessening my nausea.  So whenever I drove that route to USD law school, I’d stop for a shake.  Once I arrived at USD, I discovered something else:  As soon as I stood in front of my class, the adrenaline that kicked in also kept my nausea at bay.

I was thrilled to be pregnant, but I didn’t relish having “morning sickness” that usually lasted all day.  First thing in the morning, I’d toast English muffins and smother them with apricot preserves. They helped me face the rest of the day.  I also had a crazy craving for club sandwiches, and I remember phoning a bunch of local restaurants to ask whether their menus included my new favorite dish.

Like every ob-gyn, Dr. Blank (his real name) prescribed daily vitamins.  When I brought his Rx to the drugstore, the pharmacist handed me a bottle whose label instructed me to take four pills a day.  But the pills were gigantic.  I couldn’t bring myself to swallow more than one or two of them a day.  I just couldn’t.  But I worried about it.  Was I neglecting my future child?  During my next doctor visit, I revealed my dilemma.  Dr. Blank was appalled. The pharmacist had read his handwriting incorrectly!  I needed only one of those monster pills a day.  Phew! 

Marv and I began haunting Mr. Frostie, a venerable soft-serve ice cream shop on Garnet Avenue.  Soft-serve ice cream wasn’t as good as a date shake, but it was cold enough to work for a while.  Later I discovered a great place for maternity clothes: The JC Penney store on Garnet.

One more purchase on Garnet:  A sewing machine I bought at the Sears Outlet, where a kindly salesman cheerfully instructed me how to use it.  I’d actually first learned to use a sewing machine in junior high in LA when I was 12.  (I bought the fabric I needed at the May Co. store on Wilshire Boulevard that’s now the site of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.)  But my skills had eroded, and I was happy to revive them.  I proceeded to make easily-sewn creations like maternity tops, ties for Marv, and baby pants in a gender-neutral fabric.

That September, America witnessed an exciting event in the sports world:  “The Battle of the Sexes.”  Because the event was important in my own world, I wrote about it after seeing the 2017 film loosely based on the big event [https://susanjustwrites.com/2017/11/20/the-battle-of-the-sexes-one-more-take-on-it/].  Here’s a chunk of what I wrote:

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing how long it would take me to drive from the law school to our recently-rented apartment in La Jolla.  Waiting at home was my handsome and super-smart husband Marv, finished for the day teaching math students at UCSD.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  I’d respond:  “Which one?”

Marv had snacks and drinks ready for us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  Nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  I think that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to have them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was vindicated.

I drove home with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly, portraying not only King’s triumph over Riggs but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I’d answer “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Marv and I were on top of the world.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.  Tennis, anyone?

Later that fall, thanks to an appearance by diva Beverly Sills on a late-night TV show, we discovered that San Diego had an opera company where Sills had performed, and we eagerly bought season tickets.  One evening, I shoved my nausea aside and dressed in an elegant long dress that still fit me and headed for “Le Nozze di Figaro” at a downtown theater. The performance was so thrilling that we rushed out and bought the LP the very next day.  The season was filled with four other excellent performances, but “Figaro” remained our favorite.

In November, Marv and I were invited to spend Thanksgiving in Chatsworth, a suburb of LA, with my Aunt Sade and Uncle Sam.  (I liked to call my sweet Aunt Sade my “half-great aunt” because that sounded funny, but she really was the much younger half-sister of my mother’s father.)  We drove to Chatsworth and devoured a turkey-and-trimmings feast with Sade and Sam, their son Sid, and his family.  We loved being surrounded by their warmth that day. Scrutinizing my belly, one of them bravely asked whether I was expecting.  I happily replied yes!

In December, my mother made a visit to La Jolla, a big deal because she rarely left her beloved Chicago.  Mom’s travel wardrobe featured her very first pantsuit!  After seven decades of wearing nothing but skirts, she finally gave in and bought some stylish pants.  Mom slept on the cot we had purchased for our friend Arlyn, and, like Arlyn, she swore that it was comfortable.

Mom’s visit led to a few surprises.  Everyone in the U.S. had just started pumping our own gas.  Driving Mom somewhere, I stopped at a gas station, jumped out of the driver’s seat, and began pumping.  Mom gasped.  She was startled not only to see me performing this fairly new task, but also that I was doing it while pregnant.  Shocking!

Another surprise:  When we escorted Mom to Sea World, one of San Diego’s prime attractions, she took a look at the walrus and other sea creatures and suddenly warned me: “You shouldn’t look at these ugly animals. Looking at them…it’s not good for your baby!”  What?  Mom was a savvy businesswoman who kept up with the news by reading the Chicago Sun-Times every day.  Her bizarre warning had to stem from Old World thinking she’d heard long ago from her own European-born mother.  I was startled because it was the kind of thinking I’d never heard her express before.  Securely in the 20th century, I quickly assured her that these creatures would have absolutely no impact on my fetus!

On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated by taking Mom to a charming Italian restaurant that featured singing waiters serving a festive meal.  I wore a brand-new glamorous green maternity dress for the occasion and thought I looked smashing.  But something I ate unfortunately left an ugly stain I could never get out, so my memory of that beautiful evening is somewhat tarnished.

After Mom returned to Chicago, Marv and I took off for a weekend in Ensenada, a gorgeous spot in Baja California about 80 miles from San Diego, 62 of them on a somewhat bumpy road along the coast.  We’d traveled there from LA before we got married, and I had glorious memories of that trip. 

Our return to Ensenada was blissful.  We loved the breathtaking scenery, the food, and the lively but laid-back atmosphere.  (It wasn’t yet filled with tourists arriving on cruise ships, as it is now.)  We browsed the outdoor displays of ceramic wares and bought a colorful planter for our terrace.  It never occurred to me that we’d done anything unwise. 

But when I next saw Dr. Blank and told him about our trip, he was horrified.  He told me we’d taken a big risk by traveling to a fairly remote part of Baja California, where medical resources were much more limited than those in the U.S.  I could have developed serious medical issues in a location with none of the up-to-date care I would be able to get in San Diego.  And any attempt to travel back to San Diego could have taken much too long.  I soberly realized our mistake and was immensely grateful that we’d luckily escaped a medical emergency in Ensenada.

                                                                                                                                                                             To be continued….

Happy Valentine’s Day? Maybe

 Much of the world celebrates today, February 14th, as Valentine’s Day.

Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?  I’m wondering just who among us is.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have a loving spouse or an ardent beau, you’re probably celebrating this year.

I was a member of that fortunate group during my loving marriage to my darling husband.  Our blissful marriage came to a halt only because a terrible disease ended my husband’s life.  I like to think that we’d still be celebrating our love today if he’d survived.

Since he died, I’ve had one or two romantic liaisons with others, but at this moment I’m in a different place.  Today my kids and grandkids are my primary givers and recipients of valentine cards and gifts, red and pink hearts splashed all over them.

Of course, today is a bonanza for some commercial enterprises.  Americans spent about $21 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2021, and experts predict that nearly $24 billion will be spent this year, making today the fifth largest spending event of the year (after the winter holidays and Mother’s Day).  Will inflation and supply-chain issues affect these totals?  Valentine’s Day is probably inflation-proof, and delightful gifts can always be tracked down.

Benefiting the most are florists (about $2.3 billion), purveyors of chocolates ($2.2 billion), jewelers ($6.2 billion), and sellers of other heart-emblazoned cards and gifts. 

Which raises another question.  Aside from elementary-school kids, required to bring a valentine for every other kid in class to avoid any Charlie-Brown-style left-out feelings, is anyone still buying valentine cards this year

I hope so.  I’d hate to see an end to the decades-long practice of sending sweet wishes to loved ones and friends on February 14th

While we’re still stuck in the middle of a pandemic, confronting scary international events, and facing ongoing political divisiveness, I find it heartening to recall happier, simpler times.

Today I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.

My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago.  We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school.  This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.

In 5th grade, I acquired a handsome “boyfriend.”  (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms simply meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on my boyfriend, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.

By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.

Alan was never one of the best-looking boys in our class.  He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather hefty.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October that year, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—black t-shirts and skinny black skirts.  For some reason, we were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that term even meant, but I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked terrific in our very cool garb.  We may have even added a beret to top it off.

Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.”  It was a truly memorable Halloween, probably the most memorable Halloween of my childhood.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and happy family outings.  But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.

When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two.  Not one.  Two.  And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends.  These were store-bought pricier versions.  One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet.  The other one was funny and made me laugh.

What exactly inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way?  We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.

Looking back, I wonder about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money saved from his 6th-grade-level allowance to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering about the role his mother may have played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue, the one where we all bought our valentines?  (A long-gone kind of neighborhood store most of us patronized back then.)  Was his mother standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she was, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?

I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself.  He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me.  Then, when he saw the colorful display of cards in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or to try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each, and, head held high, he gave both of them to me. 

I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I can’t remember exactly what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother scoured our home one day and tossed everything she considered inconsequential.  But they weren’t inconsequential to me.  I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.

Everything changed in 7th grade.  A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome.  As always, life moved on.

Alan R. died a few years ago, and I wrote this story about him then.  He and I had drifted apart long before he died, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory.

Did Alan’s flattering attention give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead?  Teenage years can be tough.  Mine often were.  But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.

Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12.  Although our lives went on to have their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

A Remarkable Friend

This is a brief tribute to a remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month.  You can read more about her life in the following obits:

New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-ferguson-dead.html
Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/29/pension-rights-karen-ferguson-dies/

Why was Karen remarkable? As the Times noted, she was “a Nader Raider, one of a legion of young public-interest lawyers who flocked to Washington” in the 1970s to work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who was at that time a heroic figure on the American political scene.  She chose to devote herself to working on pension law, an “unglamorous-sounding subject” that was actually full of human drama, where she was able to champion workers’ rights and effect enormous changes to benefit their future.

I met Karen and became her lifelong friend when we were both students at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  I had just moved into Wyeth Hall, the women’s dorm, during my first year, and the delightful Karen Willner was in her third year.  Karen’s warmth immediately enveloped me, a lowly 1L. Happily for me, we stayed in touch after she graduated.

While I was finishing my three years at HLS, Karen married John Ferguson, who decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, and together they headed for Chicago.  Karen wrote to tell me that she’d begun working at a downtown Chicago law firm, where she was the first and only woman lawyer. 

During my third year of law school, I actually interviewed with that firm.  Disillusioned with the D.C. of Richard Nixon (my original destination), I was thinking about returning to Chicago, my home town.  Although I hoped to get a clerkship with a federal judge, I also interviewed with several Chicago law firms.  After chatting for a while, the recruiter for Karen’s firm told me outright, “We just hired our first woman, and we’re waiting to see how she works out before we hire another one.”  (This interview took place after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recruiter was violating federal law when he said that.)  I’ve told this story many times, to the amazement of most listeners, and I like to add that I knew who that “first woman” was:  Karen.

When I returned to Chicago, I began working for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman [please see “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” a ten-post series beginning at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/].  With both of us living and working in Chicago, Karen and I enthusiastically resumed our friendship.  Because John was busy with his law school studies, Karen and I saw each other many times in downtown Chicago.  And one memorable evening, Karen, John, and I went together to see “The Yellow Submarine” at a downtown movie theater. 

I was sad when Karen and John departed for D.C. after he finished law school (and began his career as an NLRB attorney).  But their departure led to Karen’s groundbreaking new chapter in her life as a lawyer:  her launch into helping people by reforming pension law, with fairness as her first priority. 

We managed to stay in close touch during the many years that followed.  My memory-bank is filled with happy memories of our long friendship, including wonderful times spent together in both D.C. and Chicago.

I loved following Karen’s career, deeply enmeshed in working on pension-reform legislation, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, signed into law by President Reagan, and the Butch Lewis Act, signed into law last year by President Biden.  I reviewed her excellent book, Pensions in Crisis (original title: The Pension Book).  My glowing reviews appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on January 25, 1996, and the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 1996 (“Pension Problems Come Alive, Along with Practical Guidance”).

Karen’s never-failing efforts to establish a secure and adequate retirement system, on top of expanded Social Security, are still under discussion on Capitol Hill. 

I also loved learning about the wonderful family she and John created, including her son, Andrew Ferguson, a lawyer, writer, and law professor at American University, and his wife and children.  My review and discussion of Andrew’s important book, Why Jury Duty Matters, appeared on this blog in April 2013. [Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/04/03/does-jury-duty-matter/%5D

One more thing:  When I wrote my first novel, A Quicker Blood (published in 2009), I named my protagonist, a young woman lawyer, “Karen.”  I later brought her back as the protagonist in my third novel, Red Diana (published in 2018).  Was I thinking of my friend Karen when I chose that name?  I was. And all of the current nonsense focused on the name “Karen” infuriates me.  Although there may be a few women with that name who have acted inappropriately toward others, it’s totally unwarranted to pigeonhole all Karens that way.  Just think of Karen Ferguson and all that she’s done to make the lives of hard-working Americans more secure.  That’s in addition to her being a delightful human being, beloved by everyone who knew her.

In short, I was supremely lucky to know Karen Ferguson and to call her my friend for over five decades.  I’ve lost—indeed, we’ve all lost–one of the very best people on Planet Earth.

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

This story begins in Acapulco, but it doesn’t end in Yellowknife

The powerful earthquake that shook Acapulco and Mexico City a week ago made me worry about the damage that it might inflict on those two cities.  At the same time, it revived memories of the many trips I’ve made to Mexico during the past five decades.

My first trip, in February 1970, stands out from all the rest for a bunch of reasons.  It was, notably, my first encounter with the beautiful country of Mexico.

It also represented a tremendous leap from bitter-cold Chicago to a sunny and flower-filled part of the world I couldn’t wait to visit…as well as a total departure from months of hard work at my job.

Until the day I left Chicago for Acapulco–Saturday, February 21–I’d been largely preoccupied with my work as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive Illinois abortion law.  We filed our lawsuit on Friday the 20th, and I took off for Mexico feeling a great sense of relief as well as anticipation.

Some background:  My first job after finishing law school was law clerk for a U.S. district court judge, Julius J. Hoffman.  [I’ve described my two-year clerkship in a series of blog posts beginning in November 2020.  Please see the first post in the series at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/%5D  After leaving Hoffman, I assumed a new role that validated why I’d gone to law school in the first place:  a Reggie Fellowship, assigned to work at my chosen office, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago.  [I’ve discussed the Reggie program earlier.  Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2015/08/07/the-summer-of-69/%5D

As a Reggie, my goal was to achieve law reform for the poor, and I began to focus on my role as a lawyer working on behalf of poor women and men in Chicago. 

So, after a month or two as a Reggie, I conceived the idea of challenging the Illinois abortion law, which clearly had its most profound effect on poor and minority women.  My supervisor approved of my working on this issue, and I was soon allied with another woman lawyer (at the ACLU in Chicago), who became my co-counsel and lifelong friend.  [I’m currently engaged in a writing project focused on this lawsuit.]

After months of hard work, we filed our lawsuit with the U.S. district court in Chicago on February 20, 1970, and I left the next day for my eagerly awaited respite from work, my trip to Acapulco and Mexico City.

In lieu of traveling with a close friend or relative, I set off on my own, but I’d arranged to spend part of my time with another single woman who was also traveling on her own.  I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed sympatica and was knowledgeable about traveling in Mexico.  I’ll call her Sandy.

My first stop was Acapulco and a bargain-priced hotel located near some luxurious hotels.  Sandy, who’d chosen this hotel, arrived shortly after I did and assured me that we could safely melt into the crowd sunning themselves around a pool at one of the other hotels.  (Our place had only a small, mostly unused pool.)  So we probably violated all sorts of rules when we made our way to a crowded luxury-hotel pool, filled with the cool young people of that era, and lounged there, undisturbed, delighted to have escaped the frigid Chicago winter.

I immediately fell in love with Mexico.  Acapulco turned out to be a beautiful spot, exciting and still relatively unspoiled by American tourists.

After soaking up the sun and the nighttime scene in Acapulco for a few days, Sandy and I moved on to a large middle-priced hotel in a great location in Mexico City.  Sandy had taken up with a young man she’d met in Acapulco, and although I occasionally paired up with another young man, making up a foursome, once Sandy and I were in Mexico City I decided to go off on my own most of the time.  So I proceeded to roam parts of the city I wanted to explore, feeling quite safe wherever I went.  I impulsively purchased a ticket for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and ecstatically viewed a stunning dance performance filled with music and dances reflecting many regions of Mexico, some incorporating the traditions of its indigenous peoples.  And I made a memorable visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.

Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to see some of the other exciting locations described in my guidebook, and I signed up for a small private tour whose guide would pick me up at my hotel one morning and drop me off there at the end of the day.

So early one morning, I headed to the hotel lobby.  Soon a large black car arrived, driven by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English, and I climbed inside, joining a few other tourists who were taking the same tour. 

The driver took us first to Teotihuacan, about an hour north of Mexico City, where we saw its astonishing pyramids.  I energetically climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, feeling immersed in pre-Columbian Mexico.  (Teotihuacan dates back as long as 1000 years before the arrival of the Aztecs, and the pyramid I climbed may have been built in the 4th century.)  Seeing the view from the top was exhilarating!

We proceeded to make two other stops:  the charming town of Cuernavaca and the town of Taxco, for centuries a center of silver production.  The people who lived in Taxco mined silver long before the Spanish arrived, using it for Aztec ceremonies as well as jewelry. 

I climbed the steps of Taxco’s 18th-century church, the Church of Santa Prisca, and devoured a tostada, purchased at a nearby restaurant, feasting on the tostada along with the gorgeous view from the top of those steps.  The memory of that indescribably delicious tostada, and the view, has never left me.  After choosing a couple of silver pins at a small jewelry shop (I still cherish one in the shape of the Aztec calendar stone), I reluctantly climbed back into the black car for our return trip to Mexico City, knowing that this ride meant the end of my glorious trip.

En route, I discovered that I was seated with a friendly middle-aged couple who announced that they hailed from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Yes, Yellowknife.  I’d honestly never heard of it before.  I later learned that it was the capital of the Northwest Territories, located on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake.  And it’s famed for its frigid weather.  The average winter temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, and it’s rarely above 40-below.  More than half of each year, deep snow covers the ground.

When this couple learned that I was single, they immediately began to promote Yellowknife, even though I’m sure that they themselves had happily escaped its astonishingly frigid temperatures.

Both husband and wife, sharing a mindset typical of 1970, jumped to the conclusion that I wanted nothing more out of life than to find a husband.  “Come to Yellowknife,” they implored, clearly eager to add to their ranks.  “You’ll find a husband as soon as you arrive.”  (Yellowknife apparently had an overabundance of marriageable men.)

I admit that I had trouble keeping a straight face.  But I immediately assured them that I wasn’t looking for a husband.  I had a fulfilling career and didn’t intend to move anywhere in search of a partner.  I hope I avoided being rude, never adding that, even if I did decide to move, it certainly wouldn’t be to a place like Yellowknife. 

If anything, I thought to myself, I’d move to an exciting new city and definitely somewhere warmer, not colder, than Chicago.

As it turned out, my trip to Mexico—a country loaded with brilliant sunshine and unlimited quantities of breathtakingly colorful flowers—actually did make me think about moving somewhere warmer.  When I returned to Chicago, I began to focus on a possible move, most likely to California.  (My earlier plan to move to DC had ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.)   During my Reggie training, I’d met the director of a legal services program, located at UCLA law school, who’d expressed interest in hiring me to work for him at the end of my Reggie year in Chicago. 

What exactly propelled me to move? 

I’d been growing increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Chicago for a number of reasons. Aside from my job, which I found very meaningful, much too much about the city no longer charmed me. For one thing, I hated the long cold gray winters. The political scene, dominated by a benevolent dictator, depressed me. Repeated visits to the Art Institute no longer left me giddy. And I found the social scene sadly lacking. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t any male companionship. I’d been dating a number of young men. But none of them had struck a spark. So, in the absence of any compelling reason to stay in the city, I began considering my options.

Then there was a blizzard in Chicago on April 1st.  Using a popular term of the day, I told friends that it “radicalized” me and led me to think seriously about moving to California.   [Please see “A Snowy April 1st,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2018/05/%5D

I traveled in May to San Francisco and LA, both for job interviews and for a glimpse into the sort of life I’d have if I moved to one of those fabulous cities. The prospect of that life struck me as quite appealing and at least worth a try.

By June, I decided to give up the lease on my Chicago apartment, sell most of my furniture, and make plans to fly to LA in late August, where I would take that job at UCLA.

I’ve described elsewhere what happened once I landed in LA.  [Please see, e.g., “Another love story,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/24/another-love-story/ and https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/26/another-love-story-2/%5D

But here’s my belated response to that couple from Yellowknife:  I’m sorry I disappointed you by not adding to your frostbitten population.  I think you probably meant well, but your assumption that I would even consider moving to your hometown–to find a husband–was actually offensive.  

When we met, I was in no way desperately searching for a husband.  Thankfully, I never was.  I decided a few months later to leave Chicago for LA, not knowing how my life there would turn out.  But I never contemplated for even one brief moment moving somewhere like Yellowknife.

Instead, I headed elsewhere, aiming to find—and finding–a glorious future filled with warmth and many, many sunny days ahead.

The Pink Lady

When I was growing up, my mother’s cocktail of choice was a “pink lady.” Whenever our family went out for dinner (and those dinners-out didn’t happen often), she’d order a frothy and very rosy-hued “pink lady” while Daddy chose an “old-fashioned.”

My parents weren’t everyday drinkers. Au contraire. My mother would sometimes speak disparagingly of those who indulged overmuch in alcoholic beverages, referring to them as “shikkers.” Although Daddy may have had an occasional drink at home after a difficult day at work (probably bourbon or another kind of whiskey), Mom never did. She reserved her pursuit of alcohol for our occasional dinners-out.

One dinner spot we favored was the Fireside Restaurant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, not far from our apartment on the Far North Side of Chicago. (Ironically, the restaurant was itself destroyed by fire–reputedly by mob-related arson–a few years later.) Another place we patronized was Phil Smidt’s (which everyone pronounced like “Schmidt’s”), located just over the Indiana border.

Why did we travel to Indiana for dinner when good food was undoubtedly available to us much closer to home? And long before an interstate highway connected Chicago to Northern Indiana? I remember a prolonged and very slow trip on surface streets and maybe a small highway or two whenever we headed to Phil Smidt’s.

Perhaps we wound up there because the restaurant was a perennial favorite among the people my parents knew. Or perhaps because my father actually enjoyed driving. Yes, Daddy liked getting behind the wheel in those long-ago days before everyone had a car and the roads weren’t jam-packed with other drivers. Daddy got a kick out of driving us in every direction from our home on Sunday afternoons, when traffic was especially light. But I also remember his frustration with drivers who didn’t seem to know where they were going. He referred to them as “farmers,” implying that they were wide-eyed rural types unaccustomed to city driving.

Perhaps we headed to Indiana because my parents were overly enthusiastic about the fare offered at Phil Smidt’s. As I recall, the place was famous for fried perch and fried chicken. I usually opted for the fried chicken. (At the Fireside Restaurant, my first choice was French-fried shrimp. Dinners-out seemed to involve a lot of fried food back then, and oh, my poor arteries.)

If we were celebrating a special event, like my mother’s birthday or Mother’s Day, Mom would wear a corsage. I’ve never been especially fond of corsages, which were de rigueur during my high school prom-going days. Boys would bring their dates a corsage, and girls were expected to ooh and aah over them. But I always thought corsages were a highly artificial way to display fresh flowers, and I rejected them whenever I had a choice. I’m glad social norms have evolved to diminish the wearing of corsages like those women and girls formerly felt compelled to wear.

Mom, however, always seemed pleased to wear the corsage Daddy gave her. Her favorite flower was the gardenia, and its strong scent undoubtedly wafted its way toward her elegantly shaped nose whenever he pinned one on her dress.

The “pink lady” cocktail, which incorporates gin as its basic ingredient, first appeared early in the 20th century. Some speculate that its name was inspired by a 1911 Broadway musical whose name and whose star were both called “The Pink Lady.”   It may have become popular during Prohibition, when the gin available was so dreadful that people added flavors like grenadine to obscure its bad taste.

The cocktail evolved into a number of different varieties over the years. Mom’s frothy version, around since the 1920s, adds sweet cream to the usual recipe of gin, grenadine (which provides flavoring and the pink color), and egg white.

Apparently (and not surprisingly), the drink eventually acquired a “feminine” image, both because of its name and because its sweet and creamy content wasn’t viewed as “masculine” enough in the eyes of male critics. One bartender also speculated that the non-threatening appearance of the “pink lady” probably was a major reason why it appealed to women who had limited experience with alcohol.

No doubt Mom was one of those women.

The very name of the cocktail, the “pink lady,” fit Mom to a T. She was absolutely determined to be a “lady” in every way and to instill “lady-like” behavior in her two daughters. I was frequently admonished to repress my most rambunctious ways by being told I wasn’t being lady-like. And when I had two daughters of my own, decades later, despite my strong opposition she still repeated the same admonition. She found it hard to shift gears and approve of her granddaughters’ behaving in what she viewed as a non-lady-like way. Although her basic sweetness, like that of her favorite drink, predominated in our relationship, we did differ on issues like that one.

The appellation of “pink lady” fit Mom in another way as well. She was a redhead whose fair skin would easily flush, lending a pink hue to her appearance. Whenever she was agitated (sometimes because my sister or I provoked her)…or whenever she excitedly took pride in one of our accomplishments…and assuredly whenever she was out in the sun too long, she literally turned pink.

So here’s to you, Pink Lady. In my memory, you’ll always resemble the very pink and very sweet cocktail you preferred.

Watching the movie “Z”: A tale of two Hoffmans

January 1st marks an unusual anniversary for me.

On January 1, 1970, I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances.

The 1969 film was directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lived in Paris. He based it on a book written in 1966 by Vassilis Vassilikos, who, using official documents, described the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.

Lambrakis, an MD who taught at the medical school in Athens, was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament. Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists. He later died of his injuries.

After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities. Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.” (You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”)

His focus was clear: political oppression. His cast: Yves Montand as Lambrakis, Irene Pappas as his wife, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech. Many supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for. The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators. But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.

So it’s not the police who represent oppression here. Rather, it’s the demonstrators, one of whom strikes Lambrakis in the head. He’s stunned but goes ahead to give his speech. When leaving the venue, he’s struck once again, causing him to die later in the film.

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?” Costa-Gavras’s answer: It’s all about power. Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.

Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic, and a 1967 coup by the military led to their control of the Greek government until their regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw many “art flicks” there when I was younger.  It’s long-gone, demolished and replaced by a high-rise building that includes a Neiman Marcus store.

I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor.  I’d recently completed a clerkship with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the judge who presided over “the Chicago 7 trial” (also called “the Chicago conspiracy trial”) that got underway in the fall of 1969 and was still ongoing in early 1970.  The trial stemmed from the turmoil engulfing the Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968. (Happily, I never had to work on that trial. My clerkship was ending, and my co-clerk was assigned to that task.)

[FYI: I will discuss my tenure with Judge Hoffman in an upcoming post.]

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December. Ebert was an unusually young and thoughtful movie critic, close to my own age, and I was a great fan of his reviews. This review, which called “Z” the best film of 1969, highlighted the political backdrop of corruption, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself. (As luck would have it, I met my adored and never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.)

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, was one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman).  In that era, Abbie Hoffman was a major figure in the protest movement opposing the government. All seven of the Chicago defendants were protesters indicted by “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s administration.

I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the Vietnam War, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie Hoffman was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination.

But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago led to an overreaction by the Chicago police. Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention. The U.S. Justice Department went on to indict Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants on charges brought under a law many viewed as unconstitutional.

But there was one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece: the prosecutors.

I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film. Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account. And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.

(The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetakis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but triumphed after democracy was restored and was elected by the Greek parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were politically ambitious and far from fair-minded. They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, whose protests during the convention had been largely peaceful. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the federal prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago. And although the trial defendants were convicted, they were convicted only of contempt, and these convictions were mostly reversed by other courts. But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain.

46 years later, “Z” is still a powerful film. And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.

 

 

 

Our Trip West: A Memoir

One summer during the 1950s, the thing I cared about most was our family’s long-anticipated “Trip West,” the road trip we’d mapped out for the last two weeks of summer.

Departing from our apartment in Chicago one hot August morning, we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa, the first state west of Illinois. As our eyes drank in the not-yet-boring sameness of the Iowa cornfields, my mother suddenly had an urgent question. Where was the garment bag, filled with four brand-new outfits, that she’d left hanging on the bedroom door? She didn’t remember putting it in the car.

Sure enough, when we stopped for the night, the garment bag was nowhere to be found. My parents, in their haste to leave, had forgotten to take Mom’s bag. The result? Mom had one dress to wear for the entire two-week trip.

Imagine. Two weeks in August in one brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked rayon dress. We scoured store racks from Sioux City to Sioux Falls searching for another summer dress for Mom. But by the last two weeks of August, even the least trendy stores in the least trendy parts of America had NO SUMMER DRESSES left.

By Salt Lake City, Mom was resigned to one more week of the hound’s-tooth-checked number and finally stopped looking. We were all happy to end the search, enthusiastically thanking Providence for Mom’s underactive sweat glands.

Our trip included adventures in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. But the highlight for me happened when we arrived at the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The town was not yet the “in” resort it has since become, but its mountains were already attracting skiers. And that summer I rode the Snow King Mountain chair-lift 4,000 feet to the top. By myself.

Driving through Jackson Hole, we’d noticed a sign promoting the chair-lift ride to the top of Snow King Mountain. Daddy stopped the car and got out to take a look. The rest of us followed, watching chairs whizzing up the mountain from where we stood at the bottom.

Somehow our signals got crossed because I hopped on one of the chairs thinking that Daddy was going to hop on the very next one. As I blithely began to go up the mountain, I suddenly heard loud voices. I turned around to see my parents, still at the bottom of the mountain, waving their arms and shouting. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but I got the idea: Daddy had decided not to ride the chair lift after all, and I’d made a big mistake to hop on when I did.

I faced forward again, realizing that it was too late to get off. The chair was moving fast, and if I tried to dismount, disaster might ensue. So I sat back and feasted my eyes on the spectacular scenery. Chicago never looked like this.

When I reached the top of the mountain, I was startled by a man who emerged from a small structure, took my photo, then pulled me off the still-moving chair. Shouting “YOUR MOTHER WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,” he thrust a telephone receiver into my hand. Calling from the bottom of the mountain, my mother frantically demanded to know if I was all right. After assuring her that I was fine, I hung up, and the top-of-the-mountain man helped me mount a chair going downhill.

As I descended, I realized how very high I’d climbed. I could see all the way down the mountain to the tiny town below, and it finally sunk in just how far I could fall if I slipped out of the chair. Luckily, the rest of the ride went smoothly.

When I landed safely at the bottom of the mountain, my parents rushed to greet me, my mother smothering me with kisses. I wondered why they’d been so worried. Now, a mother (and grandmother) myself, I no longer wonder. Seeing one of my young children whisked up a 7,808-foot mountain, all alone, I would have panicked too.

With the Jackson Hole episode behind us, our family explored Colorado and Utah before heading home. By the time we got to North Platte, Nebraska, we were sure our Western adventures were over. But we were wrong.

We dined at a local steakhouse, figuring on an uneventful walk back to our motel. But when we left the steakhouse, the air was swarming with hundreds of enormous locusts. Unaccustomed to seeing any insect larger than a horsefly, we were shocked to see hordes of gigantic bugs zooming through the air.

We ducked and began running, collapsing in the bug-free atmosphere of our motel room. But it was too early to proclaim victory over the insect world. As Mom began to undress (yes, the brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked number), a locust emerged from the vicinity of her bra and began to fly around the room. We all screamed till Daddy did what was expected of 1950s-era Daddies and got rid of the thing. It took us a while to settle down to sleep that night.

We returned to Chicago and our routine existence. But the memories of our Trip West never faded. A reminder arrived in our mailbox a few weeks later: the photo of me, in the chair-lift, at the top of Snow King Mountain.

Among my favorite memories are those of my travels, starting with those I took with my parents so long ago. I’ve gone on to travel to many parts of the world, and I plan to keep on going. Inside me is a little girl on a chair-lift, eager to be transported up the mountain one more time.